Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Q&A Joyce Carol Oates: The Strangeness in Her


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

The house in which his mother and stepfather now lived was cheaply flashy "ranch," but the other house was the true house, the house of memory, pain, repetition.
      Joyce Carol Oates Oates,
     "The Collector of Hearts New Tales of the Grotesque" (1998)

HB: Your two recent books of stories, "Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque" and "Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque", are devoted explicitly to the gothic and grotesque. But these have always been elements in your work.

JCO: I think so. I'm interested in what we call Gothic literature. To me, it's surreal, which doesn't mean it's necessarily a category distinct from realistic writing. We do have dreams every night, which are surreal. We have nightmares, with very beautiful and improbably images, and yet that's real, our psychic life is real, in a sense, to us. The distinction between real and surreal is always porous.

HB: Isn't there a sense in which these stories can be called Lovecraftian, H.P. Lovecraft's basic point being that the more you know about the universe, the scarier it gets?

JCO: I edited a collection of Lovecraft, and wrote quite a lengthy introduction. He had a very dark sensibility. His father had syphilis and went mad. He saw his father go crazy when he was very very young. His mother also was mentally unbalanced. He grew up in an atmosphere of terror, and experienced the world through that prism of terror. I'm not sure I would really align myself with that. I like Lovecraft but as you know his creatures are physically bizarre. They look like comic strip demons and monsters.

HB: In "Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic" (1997), Mark Edmundson argues that we're undergoing a culture wide involvement in the Gothic. I don't know about that, but I can easily think of plenty of current television shows that play on that sensibility.

JCO: I've seen the X-files. The concepts are very interesting, but the execution is not quite as interesting. In Kafka, the concepts are extraordinary and the execution is also extraordinary. I think with popular culture, the concepts can be very imaginative though perhaps not original, but the execution tends to be on the level of mass market.

I have read some Stephen King, and I like his short stories. In his short stories he is so much more concise. He's writing for an audience of millions of people, and if he writes a 700 page novel it has to have a lot of action. I'm not that interested in action; I'm more interested in metaphor or the reaction of an intelligent person. So I tend to prefer the short stories, where the concepts are usually very imaginative but you don't have to struggle through hundreds of pages of action and cinematic effects. Stephen King is a very gifted storyteller in a certain mode; maybe he's to be compared with Stephen Spielberg. They're very popular storytellers who relate to millions of people.

The kind of writing I'm interested in, which might be called Kafkaesque, doesn't appeal to very many people, as my own writing doesn't appeal to very many people. For instance, a great gothic work that I love is "The Turn of the Screw." I think that's elegant.

HB: So elegant it's easy to miss what's going on.

JCO: It's ambiguous because it's very subjective. You don't know whether the governess is seeing a reality or not. It's been made into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a wonderful opera but the ghosts are real; you see them, they're very Lawrentian, sensuous. Peter Quipp is a physical presence, rather erotic. And so some of the mystery is gone. Whereas in the novel, you don't really know, so I think the novel is a superior work .

HB: Is there a reason why there's interest in the Gothic now?

JCO: There's always been some interest. We always have a way of projecting our own anxieties out onto somebody else. In the 1950s it tended to be the possibility of nuclear war, which was real, and of invasions from other planets, UFOs. I guess UFOs are still popular. And then there's the millennium. People are pretending to be worried about that.

HB: Pretending?

JCO: I'm baffled that anyone could take it seriously, that the year 2,000 has any meaning. Of course it does in terms of computers. But this is just our calendar. There are other cultures in the world where it isn't 2,000. The year 2,000 is just a symbol. But I guess people can fantasize about it. There are people who have apocalyptic yearnings. I guess they're serious. To me, it would be a pretense. I couldn't possibly think that 2000 means anything different from 1999.

HB: Everyone knows that sex sells. But the primary force you rely on is fear. At least in the new stories, deep fear is predominant.

JCO: It seems to based on primeval experiences, maybe in childhood or dreams, feelings of intense anxiety that go back to infancy. I would place it more in the human psyche than in anything supernatural. I'm a very skeptical person, I don't believe in the supernatural, If I'm writing about a person who's haunted he or she would be haunted by a psychic phenomenon.

HB: And what you have that's Jamesian, rather Stephen Kingian, is deniability, meaning a lot of the stories can be understood as dreams or delusions of some sort.

JCO: Definitely. That's the kind of writing that interests me. And I'm so interested in language. Each of my stories is an experiment with a certain kind of voice. When I read I read for voice; that's why it's hard for me to read just anything, because I'm mainly interested in the language.

I have such a joyous feeling if I think I'm writing something like a fairy tale, or a parable, a "once upon a time." It doesn't seem that the story only has to be set in a certain place and certain time. It might be universal, and there's a kind of happiness in writing that way. You're not just writing about yourself or your parents. I've very drawn to that kind of language, in my reading, too.

HB: What kind of reading do you do?

JCO: I read very variously. I do a lot of cluster reading, that is, I'll read everything by one writer or I'll read everything on a subject. It's kind of obsessive, and has been that way since junior high school. For instance, if I get interested in Chekov, I will read all his plays, many short stories, a couple of biographies, and maybe talk to people who translate Chekov. Chekov is THE interest.

HB: A fixation?

JCO: A fixation. I review for the New York Review of Books quite often and they urge you to do this kind of reading; they keep sending you more books. The most recent focus is about Joan Benet Ramsey, the six years old girl who was found dead in Colorado. It's a case that's been investigated since 1996. I've read about four or five books on that subject.

HB: Do often you take the news as a starting point for your work?

JCO: Rarely. There has to be some sort of personal connection. But once and a while something does stay in my mind. The very opening of that "What I lived For, was taken from something that really happened. While writing this novel, I remembered a strange image of a man cut down that I'd read about some years before: a car goes by, he's riddled with bullets and dies while putting a Christmas wreath up on his door. That's the first paragraph of "What I lived For" and the act radiates through the novel.

HB: You employ an almost baffling number of point of points of view in your work.

JCO: I'm very interested in human beings of different perspectives. I'm actually looking for a new subject at the moment. I just finished a novel the other day, and it was such a long novel and such an exhausting experience that I feel now, and this is confirmed by the sunshine, like I've been in a cave for ten months.

HB: What is the novel?

JCO: There's not much point in talking about it now. I don't even know if or when it will be published. It's about the childhood and womanhood of the person we know as Marilyn Monroe. It's going to take a while to get over that novel.

HB: The element that seemed very dreamlike in "The Collector of Hearts" is that often you can see what's going to happen miles down the road, and you can't move. You're not building suspense about the unexpected. There's not much element of surprise. It's the opposite; there's the dreamlike terror of being unable to run when water's rising.

JCO: That's interesting, what you're saying.

HB: Sometimes your characters suffer so terribly that the reader's heart opens, or mine does. I'm thinking in particular of the brief powerful story of the old people, one of whom is found dead. It ends with a cop saying, that's nothing, come see what's in the bathroom.

JCO: This is something that can happen and has happened. We read about people whose houses or apartments are broken into. Who knows who has done it? Maybe the kids from next door.

HB: There's nothing supernatural in this story. The real world is so bad it takes on the character of the supernatural.

JCO: I'm glad you like that. It's such a horrifying little story. I was sort of thinking of myself and my husband, to tell the truth. I had a horrible fantasy of people coming in the house Q it could be kids looking for a something Q they're in and out in five minutes and your life is gone.

HB: I also wanted to mention "The Affliction" about the artist who makes work out of sores, rashes, things growing out of his own body. In some ways that's the romantic notion of the artist, it's Thomas Mann writing about illness and inspiration. But you literalize it. The artist actually uses growths that emerge from his body.

JCO: I was thinking of Goya. Goya's vision is so dark. I was thinking of Francis Bacon, and others who have this nightmarish quality. Then I suppose I was thinking of myself. We're restless; we can't stay still. I'm so impatient with things as they are. I always feel restless about needing to create art.

HB: Where does a piece start for you typically? Do you see a plot?

JCO: It starts with restlessness. [coughs]. I was talking too personally about myself and I started coughing. Did you notice that? As soon as I started talking this way my throat caught. It means I shouldn't be saying this.

HB: Let me try another approach. If you cough, we'll back off. There's a lot of childhood and adolescence in your stories. Do you have a profound feeling for childhood or are you thinking of some trauma of your own?

JCO: It's a good question. I think we forget so much, so much is amnesia. That's why I have a story that just has a black rectangle as its name. Things come toward the main character like blanks. Black rectangles, amnesiac things.

HB: Lacunae.

JCO: Exactly. I'm sure I have a lot of them in my own life. I'm sure I had a lot of good things, too. One of the reasons I wrote about Marilyn Monroe is that to me she's a quintessential childhood and adolescent figure. She really never grew up. She never had a real childhood. She was the daughter of a woman who was schizophrenic and she had no father. She was always insecure, and many adolescents are extremely insecure. I identify with that.

HB: What surprised me about one of the stories, "Hand Puppet," is that it turned out to be about the mother. It seemed it was going to be about the young daughter and her horrible puppet.

JCO: I can tell you where I got that idea from. I had a student, maybe 15 years ago, a young woman with a puppet. She was very gifted but very disturbed. You could just see the strangeness in her. She was able to express herself through the puppet but it was not very pleasant.

HB: The twist is that puppets are such natural habitats for demons. I expected to find out more about the puppet, and that's not at all what happens.

JCO: No, the mother sees that her daughter is her own puppet. The mother has this malevolent puppet daughter who herself has the real puppet. I don't have any children but it must be the most profound and hideous experience to realize that one of your own children is an evil person. We know there are monsters in the world. Jeffrey Daumer did have parents. His parents had to look at him one day and say, we are the parents of Jeffrey Daumer.

HB: You spoke about restlessness driving you to a story. What do you think of initially? Is there a mood? Some sort of plot outline?

JCO: I get very excited. I like to go running. I love to run. It's a beautiful day today with blue skies, so I'll go running. And when I'm running my mind will be sort of like a hawk and it will find something to focus upon. I'm doing revisions for the Marilyn Monroe novel, taking out sections and making them into short stories. I'm in the phase now where I'm swooping around my own novel.

So it begins with a feeling of excitement; it's very visceral; I want to write something exciting and something new and something profound, at least to me. But at the same time, I don't have to hunt, really, because I have a whole store of things that I remember. And I'm very interested in people. So when I go running I might think, well, there is that person, I always wanted to write about that person. And I always wanted to write about Nantucket Island, because I fall in love with places. So I put them together. Sometimes it begins with a place, and sometimes with a person and place that are absolutely connected.

HB: There's often a tension in your work between decorum and some romantic and destructive impulse. I'm thinking of "I Lock My Door Upon Myself".

JCO: Wow, that novel's very close to my heart. I can tell you I could not have written that without the setting. When my parents read that my mother said, oh, I know right where that is. The old mill and the hill, and the creek and all these places from my girlhood. I was thinking of my own grandmother and the mysteries in her life. I loved her very much and we look alike. My grandmother actually was Jewish, and that was not known at the time.

HB: What about Calla, the main character of "I Lock My Door Upon Myself"? She is kind of a wild child.

JCO: She talks to herself, she drifts around, she sleeps outside.

HB: She doesn't care about bathing, dressing.

JCO: I could be that way, I suppose. It's just convention that makes us live in houses. Like Calla, I grew up in the country and wandered around the fields and into the creek and into the woods. I could go tramping through fields for hours. A lot of what Calla does are things I did myself, I'd go into barns and run across fields. My great happiness is running. That's something I've been doing since I was very little. It seems to exclude a social world, a world of human relations and yet I wonder if I could get any happiness from this activity if I didn't have human relations. I've been married for 38 years. I'm taking for granted something somebody else may not have.

HB: I've read, and I hope you don't mind me alluding to this, that your sister is autistic.

JCO: Yes, that's true.

HB: Has that played a role in your fiction?

JCO: It's played a role in my life. I often write about twins. My sister looks like me. She was born on my birthday. She's 18 years younger than I am. And she's never uttered a coherent word. She is my opposite number. I'm called prolific and she's never spoken.

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